The peanuts, the coconut curlicues, sour cream, raisins, and the small bowl of mango chutney are waiting on the living room table for the boiled rice and lamb curry. My mother’s still cooking in the kitchen. From her bedroom, I can hear Super Mario spitting out firepower on the Nintendo and my nephew Luis’s gleeful laughter.
The phone rings.
I put down my Chivas on ice and pick up the receiver. “Happy Easter,” says a voice on the other end.
“You’ve got the wrong number,” I answer casually, about to hang up.
“Wait! Bad joke, I know. It’s me, Uncle Abie.”
The once familiar voice makes me smile. “I might’ve guessed.”
“—After all these years of living with Sarita, I’ve taken to her ways. I wear a gold crucifix and go to Sunday Mass with her. I believe in the sad Jew on the cross. He was terribly misunderstood.”
“He wasn’t a bad guy. I’m more suspicious of those who came after.”
“Yes, we shouldn’t blame Him for his followers.”
My brother Henry lowers the sports page, trying to figure out who’s on the phone. I cover the receiver with my palm.
“Who’d call and wish us Happy Easter on Erev Passover?”
Henry reaches for the beer bottle jammed between his legs and gulps down a mouthful of St. Pauli’s Girl. He winces as the cold beer sears his throat; he sucks in air to douse the burning. “Oh boy, the fun’s about to begin,” he burps out, smiling.
“Hello. Hello,” says the voice on the phone. “Which of you two is it? Henry always had the voice of a low, deep fart.”
“It’s Danny, uncle,” I say, smiling.
“Oh, yes, my sweet little Danny. How do you expect me to recognize you? You haven’t spoken to me in at least twenty years!”
“More like thirty.”
I hear him coughing away from the receiver. “What’s another ten years? The time it takes a bug to fly from a pile of shit to your food plate.”
“Same old Uncle Abie,” I say, warming up to him. Only he could come up with a line like that. Erev Passover. Easter. Obviously his church-going ways haven’t affected his choice of language or dampened his humor.
“Not the same, Danny. My body’s deserting me. My knees are bulging like tomatoes. My heart, my poor heart--”
“My mother told me you’ve been sick.”
“Sick isn’t the word, nephew. The doctor says I’m finished. Well, almost. Half my heart is dead. Atrophied. And I have emphysema. The years of smoking have destroyed my lungs—they’re leaking like screens. The worst thing of all—my dick’s limp.”
“The girls must be mourning, eh?”
Abie doesn’t answer. His silence was always a prelude to fake emotional pincers. I can almost hear him weeping. “Girls? Is that what you think my life is about now? Girls? I’m ready for the undertaker.”
“Uncle, I was joking.” I remember an incident in Guatemala. Maybe forty years have gone by. Uncle Abie wanted to take Henry and me, not quite teenagers, to a whorehouse by the railroad tracks. The thought alone had made our knees buckle. We preserved our virginity by dreaming up some ruse about promising to take our grandmother to play cards at her sister-in-law’s. More than preserving virginity, we avoided the crabs or the clap or whatever the hell one gets from screwing whores for fifty cents a pop by the Guatemala City railroad yards.
“I don’t think about those things anymore, Daniel. I’m a shadow of what I was. And no matter what, you need to respect me. I’m your uncle and you shouldn’t forget that. You and your brother always had a hard time respecting me. And you’ve never appreciated my spiritual side.”
I’m a grown man now, scratching fifty. I married, became a father, raised two daughters, divorced, and may remarry again. The choices I’ve made haven’t always been right, but I’ve accepted responsibility for what I’ve done—the gaffs, the betrayals. My philosophy is simple. We bungle through life, but it’s best to own up: the ultimate crime is to sidestep the bullet meant for you so some innocent chump gets mowed down.
Time has flown by. Once I was son and nephew, but now am father and uncle. I’m deferential to my older relatives, but suspect we’ve respected Uncle Abie for more than he was worth. Age has earned me the right to express my ideas—to suppose that my Uncle Abie has found Christ because the end is near and he’s gone spiritual so he can raid the collection plate. Gone are the days when he’d get Henry and I to pull out our peckers in front of his buddies to see if our penises had lengthened in their thicket of hair. Gone are the days he’d tell us to put rooster shit on our upper lips, for our mustaches to grow. Gone are the days fear clamped our mouths shut.
Henry’s different, more forgiving. For him, memories have become stories that can be recycled and retold—the fodder to ignite a blaze of laughter at a dull party. I find myself filleting memories, autopsying them, trying to figure out what meaning I can squeeze out of them.
I gulp down a mouthful of my scotch. “I remember when you’d leave us after Shabbat dinner and go off to Puerto Barrios,” I hear myself say, blaming the Chivas for the prattling of my mouth.
Can silence be heard? Uncle Abie’s silence is three thousand miles away. Still I can hear it. And his damaged heart must be sinking faster than the Mexican peso during the 1983 devaluation.
Does he really think his whoring capers went by unperceived?
I look over at Henry. He’s reading baseball spring training box scores, enjoying the banter, my half of the conversation. He doesn’t share my contempt and would prefer to cash it in for chips in Reno or Las Vegas. To him, life is a farce. He truly enjoys reliving crucial memories one item at a time, savoring the best parts, as if they were opulent women.
I cover the receiver. “Wanna speak to him?”
“What? And have him try to hit me up for a few hundred bills? No way! Tell him I’ve gone bowling or taken my kids to midnight Mass.” Henry is a lapsed Jew, married Catholic, but religion doesn’t matter to him. He celebrates Hannukah and Christmas, Easter and Passover all the same.
Abie has resumed talking.
“Uncle, I missed what you said.”
“—I said you can’t wipe your ass on a lifetime of memories, Danielito. One day you’ll find your own closet full of them. I hope they let you sleep.”
Uncle Abie has strong verbal skills. He’s always been able to talk himself out of places he didn’t belong—a drunken brawl; a poker table where he owed thousands of dollars; or when he was caught red-handed in bed with his best friend’s wife. I’ve never known a person who controls, or tries to control, situations with so much cleverness. For the last thirty years he has hustled carpets, wristwatches, phony merchandise from Guatemala to Mexico City to Guadalajara to Chihuahua to Los Angeles, this after having spent weeks in a Honduran jail. He’d have spent the rest of his life in Tegucigalpa if his brothers hadn’t sprung him. Rather than be grateful, he accused them of engineering his imprisonment. And now he’s living on welfare and Medicare in California, or so my mother says. I can only imagine whose papers he bought, to become a bonafide U.S. citizen, the son of a plumber hailing from Tulsa or Norman, Oklahoma--
“Sorry, uncle. I wish there was something I could do for you.” Once again pitying his antics when I should be furious.
“Forget it, Danny. We end up stewing in our own juices. No one cares that I’ve had to invent a new way to walk so I won’t wear out my shoes or that I’ve stopped crossing my legs for fear of wearing out my pants. Every week I stand in line for three hours to get a bag of rice and a chunk of cheese from welfare. But at least my pecker can still pee into a toilet from three feet away.”
My mother steps out of the kitchen. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she says. Behind her I hear the rice boiling in water, the cover banging lightly on the saucepan. “Who’s on the phone?” she asks softly.
“Just a second,” I say to my uncle, covering the receiver.
“It’s your brother, mom.”
Her tired face lights up girlishly. “David?”
“It’s Abie, isn’t it?”
Sadness informs her face. “I can’t talk to him right now. Can you tell him that nicely?” She, alone among her brothers, still keeps in touch with Abie. “Be kind to him, Danny. He’s so all alone.”
She’s right. The debate as to who’s to blame is over when you reach your eighties. Why hold a grudge? Pity the eighty-year-old former Nazi guards; Klaus Barbie loved dogs and children and, besides, his ticker was sputtering. In the Exodus tale, Uncle Abie would portray himself as Aaron with a rod turned into a serpent, whose gift of speech allowed him to speak for Moses. He would always be the loyal brother, the trusty sidekick who had nothing to do with the golden calf.
From Abie’s point of view, he’s always the victim, even when he’s preparing you for the spit. Unjustly accused of murder, even when he’s caught happily savoring your tasty ribs.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s out shopping, Uncle Abie.”
“I see.” I know he’s tired of talking to me. “And your brother Henry?”
I continue lying. “He’s downstairs--whacking balls on the tennis courts with his kids.”
“Tennis,” he repeats. The word must remind him of the most glorious chapter of his life. When he was in his early twenties, Uncle Abie had the makings of a championship tennis player. He was on the Guatemalan national team, which competed in Panama in the 1948 Pan American games.
“You used to have a wicked backhand, Uncle.”
“That I did. Danny, you do remember?”
I smile. “Do I! You told me you once defeated Pancho Gonzáles in Havana.”
Uncle Abie laughs into the phone. “That’s just a story. Margeaux and I were spending our honeymoon at the Nacional. Actually Gonzáles and I only volleyed for about twenty minutes because his tennis partner got a cramp.” He pauses. “Those were the days. There was booze and women everywhere. I was at the top of my game,” he boasts.
“With women or tennis?” the words seep out of me.
This is a different kind of silence; Uncle Abie’s jocularity has been doused, the balloon popped. “Danny, you’re talking about my first wife, the mother of my two sons. She’ll always be your aunt. If you saw her now with osteoporosis, walking around bent over with her nose to the ground, you wouldn’t say such things.”
Of course he’s right. But I detest him because he insists on shifting responsibility away from himself. He abandoned his two sons in Mexico--that’s how they see it. In the end, I can’t really dislodge the forty-year old image of Uncle Abie. It stays intact, as if he were nothing more than freeze-dried coffee.
“Danny, do you watch the Weather Channel?” he asks me.
“Sometimes I switch it on to check the weekly forecast. Why?”
“They have a show where you can see the effect of hurricanes,” he says, growing animated. “The wind is something. It blows everything away—roofs, cars, whole buildings. The channel also broadcasts shows on tornadoes, typhoons and tidal waves. There’s no escape, not even for ants—and we are less than ants. All we can do is die.”
“You’re lucky to have Jesus.”
“Everyone wants to be saved.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle.” I say distracted, my heart torn because my two daughters are having the Passover meal with their mother.
“So am I…Danny, you were such a sweet kid. What made you bitter?”
What made me bitter? Part of me feels genuine pity for him, the other part, set up. With Uncle Abie, you never know which way to go.
I’m not bitter, really, but it’s Erev Passover, not Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—and we’re about to sit down for dinner. We will retell the story of the Exodus, which is, after all, a parable of escape and liberation. How our ancestors fled a tyrant, foraged around in the desert for forty years after being freed from bondage, prayed to a golden calf, received the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai, learned to comport themselves as a people under one God. The youngest child will ask the four questions and one of the adults will hide the Afikomen.
Exodus is a great story of strategy, suffering, magic, destruction, rebellion and temporary salvation. Nowhere does it speak of remorse or forgiveness. More stories followed for the Jews and the final end, as we know, is still to be written.
I wish I could say these things to Uncle Abie.
Maybe something other than the savior will help him accept death.
But he’s already saying good bye to me, relieved, and surely his eyes are leaking tears.
Guatemalan-born David Unger is the author of Life in the Damn Tropics (Syracuse University Press, 2002, Wisconsin University Press, 2004, [Vivir en el maldito trópico. Random House Mondadori, Mexico, 2004; Recorded Books 2005; Locus Publishing, Taiwan, 2006 and Yingpan Brother Publishing, China, 2007]).
His short stories have appeared in Playboy Mexico (October 2005), Currents from the Dancing River: New Writing By Latinos (New York: Harcourt), Tropical Synagogues: Latin American Jewish Fiction (New York: Holmes and Meiers), and in literary journals here and abroad. His new novel, In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful, has just begun making the rounds with publishers. He has translated eleven books, among them Teresa Cárdenas’s Letters to My Mother (Groundwood Books, 2006), Rigoberta Menchú’s The Honey Jar (Groundwood Books, 2006) and The Girl from Chimel (Groundwood Books, 2005), Ana María Machado’s Me in the Middle (Groundwood Press, 2002), Silvia Molina’s The Love You Promised Me (Curbstone Press,1999 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize and shortlisted for the 2001 IMPAC Prize); The Popol Vuh (Groundwood Press, 1999); Elena Garro’s First Love (Curbstone Press); Bárbara Jacobs’ The Dead Leaves (Curbstone Press); and Nicanor Parra’s Antipoems: New and Selected (New Directions). He is the recipient of several prizes including the 1998 Ivri-Nasawi Institute Poetry Prize, and he shared in the 1997 ALTA Translation Prize for Roque Dalton’s Small Hours of the Night (Curbstone Press). He serves on the advisory board of Críticas Magazine, Curbstone Press and the Multicultural Review. He teaches Translation in the City College of New York’s MFA Program.
Life in the Damn Tropics: A Novel (Paperback) by David Unger